Fish star waits in the wings

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The goldfish I won at a funfair as a child was my first encounter with a member of the carp family.

As I grew up I learnt that larger edible species of carp provoke both love and loathing. Few people are indifferent to this fish. It is fat and noble to some, a muddy and boring penance to others. Yet there are those whose antipathy has turned to enthusiastic appreciation. Peter and Juliet Kindersley of Sheepdrove Organic Farm are among them. I, too, am a convert having spent a fly-on-the-wall year observing the Kindersleys explore the possibilities of sustainable fish farming, and shared in tastings at their kitchen table.

I cannot pretend carp rates among my top five favourite fish but my crystal ball
predicts that carp will be a rising star in the piscine firmament, and it will not be long before Britons again become familiar with the handsome fish so widely depicted in Chinese art; which is central to the Christmas feast of Catholic Poland; and beloved of innumerable Jewish kitchens.

In medieval England every monastery and manor house had its own living-larder fishpond brimming with carp, perch and tench to feed their communities on the many days of abstinence dictated by the Church. But as the influence of the Church dwindled over time, the role of carp changed from food to fisherman’s sport. Where is the high street fishmonger selling carp now? If you want carp in Britain today, first find a Jewish or Chinese market.

The taste for carp, and the esteem in which it is held, has never been lost in Asia and Eastern Europe. The Chinese relish carp and cook it variously. The Germans love it and the French have a healthy respect for it. But the Poles are arguably the greatest carp supporters, never wavering in their faithfulness since Catholicism was established in Poland in the 10th century.

Refraining from meat on fast days is still practised there, and the tradition for serving fish, not meat, at certain feasts survives. Goose or turkey may be served for lunch on Christmas Day in Poland “but by then the festivities of Christmas are really over”, according to Mary Pininska, author of The Polish Kitchen. Wigilia (Christmas Eve) is the main event, not Christmas Day, she says, and dinner on Wigilia is the high point of the culinary year, a splendid feast traditionally followed by carol singing, present-giving around a candlelit tree and, finally, the celebration of midnight Mass.

The menu may no longer include 12 courses, as once it did, one for each of the apostles, but no meats are served on that day and no animal fats are used in the cooking. Instead “mushrooms from the woods, cereals from the fields, fish from the waters, and fruit from the orchards” are all served in abundance, with carp and pike given pride of place. Common carp, with its fully scaled body, is especially favoured, generally reckoned more handsome and delicious than mirror carp, whose random scale patterns are as intriguingly individual as fingerprints. The best specimens weigh 2-3 kg (those over 4 kg tend to be coarse) and males with soft roes are prized most of all.

Just as we in Britain search for silver coins and charms in our Christmas pudding, so the Poles seek and save carp scales at Wigilia for good luck. Keeping a couple in your wallet or purse means you should escape poverty in the coming year.

As you read this, families all over Poland will be preparing their carp for this evening’s feast. They may have bought it live a few days earlier and kept it in the bathtub, changing the water many times. So, no bathing for humans until the morning of Christmas Eve, after the purified fish is taken out and killed.

“A blessing from the priest” is traditional, meaning a blow to the head with the little truncheon fishermen refer to as the priest. A rolling pin serves as well but many modern cooks prefer to lay the cleansed fish in a plastic bag and put it briefly in the freezer, where the dramatic drop in temperature kills it quickly without risk of bruising the flesh.

Back at the Kindersleys’ farm, the couple didn’t really set out to produce carp. Their fish are, so to speak, a by-product of the reed bed purification system they created to treat the effluents from raising and processing lamb, mutton, beef, pork and chickens on their Berkshire downland farm. The gravity- operated reed bed system ends in a two-acre S-shaped lake where waterfowl, algae, plankton and other pondlife flourish, and insects, invertebrates and plants thrive on the fringes, creating their own micro-systems.

The lake water is purer and sweeter than water drawn from boreholes on the farm – clean enough in fact to meet EU bathing standards, I was told. Two and a half years ago, the Kindersleys stocked their lake with 200 young carp no larger than the palm of your hand. They have reached good harvestable weights now and are multiplying fast. This summer they were joined by 200 predatory perch to help keep their numbers under control. The joy of all this is that it is so different from salmon farming. Salmon are migratory and territorial. Pollution and disease run rife, and the conversion rate of fishmeal feed to end product is a disaster. The process is unnatural and worrying.

Carp on the other hand seem born to be farmed – like oysters. They are relatively hardy and healthy, very prolific, modest feeders and rather lazy. They are omnivorous, and the natural products of good pond life are generally enough to sustain them.

“If we needed to boost their diet we could feed them wheat grown on the farm or chuck some manure into the lake to stimulate plant growth,” Peter told me. “In China, where carp are widely farmed, platforms are laid over the carp ponds, so the excrement of chickens or pigs living on the decking automatically drops into the water. Farmyard space is saved and the fish feeding grounds are simultaneously enriched – a double whammy.”

When I went to Sheepdrove in early summer, Peter had fished a trio of carp and put them in a children’s paddling pool fitted with a water filter pump to serve as a purification tank. Three days, we hoped, would get rid of the muddiness that haunts all carp unless caught in fast-running streams or gravel-bottomed pools. We lifted them out with large and sturdy landing nets. Not as easy as it sounds. Carp are wily. We chased. They thrashed and splashed. Peter killed them, we gutted and filleted them and plunged them in brine or acidulated water for varying numbers of hours to cleanse them further before cooking.

We cooked each fillet the same way for proper comparison: dusted with flour and fried in butter to serve with a sharp green sauce of chopped shallot, capers and parsley with a hint of mint, plus salt, pepper, lemon and olive oil. The fish was fresh and juicy with big not-too-soft flakes, but sadly its taste was earthy and rather dull. The purification process has since been cracked. Two to three weeks, not days, makes all the difference, producing carp that are sweet, clean and nutty, a real pleasure to eat.

Recent months have seen successful pickling experiments. Carp seems a natural choice for caveach (pickling) and gravadlax treatments. Next stop, smoking. Smoked carp has been Juliet’s aim all along. The notion of a sustainable organic smoked fish to rival smoked salmon is hard to resist, and ten fat carp will be sent to the king of English smokers, Michael Brown of Brown and Forrest in Somerset, for trials immediately after Christmas.

I remain interested in fresh carp, and like the idea of being able to order whole fish or fillets from Sheepdrove’s Bristol shop or by mail order, ideally with a sheet of recipe ideas attached to encourage the cook to explore a wide range of tastes ancient and modern: the comfort of classic gefilte fish and the sting of horseradish; a Chinese-style sweet and sour sauce; and a medieval sweet and sour sauce thickened with butter, chopped almonds and crumbs of spiced honey cake studded with raisins; the velvety richness of an egg yolk and cream sauce flavoured with mushrooms, herbs and wine; the faintly medicinal tang of fennel and saffron; cold fish set in a sparkling jelly; seared fillets dressed with an oriental mix of spring onion, garlic, ginger, rice wine, soy, sesame oil and green coriander; homely fishcakes laced with parsley, capers and a shake of Worcester sauce.

But sometimes the simplest ideas are most appealing. Just last week, we cooked a fine looking carp in the Kindersley kitchen, slashed on both sides, with a few sprigs of herbs laid in its belly, plus sea salt and black pepper. It was painted with olive oil, topped with slices of lemon, wrapped in a baggy foil parcel and baked, just like sea trout. What better proof could there be of the fish’s excellence than to eat it like that, partnered only by steamed potatoes and lemon, and not find it wanting?

The thrill is that this is not just a pipe-dream. It is for real. Genuinely sustainable organic fish farming is on the cards.

www.sheepdrove.com

Brown & Forrest at www.smokedeel.com

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